'I get [indictment] recommendations and Lapid gets applause'

Netanyahu blasts ‘biased’ police, attacks Lapid for testifying against him

PM says case against him is like a ‘Swiss cheese,’ notes that his former finance minister, said to be a key witness, was also a good friend of Hollywood mogul at heart of probe

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday slammed the police recommendations that he stand trial on a slew of corruption charges as “biased” and “extreme,” and attacked Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, who is a witness in one of the cases against him.

Lapid, a former finance minister who has become a bitter political rival of Netanyahu, reportedly gave police critical evidence that the Israeli leader pushed to extend a law that would have given his benefactors millions of dollars in tax breaks.

In a statement about what has come to be known as Case 1000, police on Tuesday said that in return for gifts from Israeli Hollywood mogul Arnon Milchan and others, Netanyahu sought legislation to extend by a further decade an existing 10-year tax exemption for returning Israelis on income earned abroad — which could have saved Milchan millions of dollars.

Police, in a summary of their findings, said that and other political favors were granted in exchange for some NIS 750,000 in pricey gifts — including cigars and champagne — lavished on the Netanyahus by Milchan for years, and recommended the prime minister stand trial on bribery, fraud, and breach of trust. They also recommended similar charges in a second investigation, Case 2000.

Former finance minister Yair Lapid (left) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, when the last government was in power, in Jerusalem on July 3, 2013. (Flash90)

Speaking at a conference on Wednesday, the prime minister addressed Lapid’s role for the first time, saying said the Yesh Atid party leader was only questioned by police “for an hour” on the Milchan connection.

According to Netanyahu, police investigators only briefly asked the premier about the issue during his seven rounds of interrogation.

“It was an investigation lasting a year and a half, and now it emerges that based on that testimony, Lapid is a key witness,” said Netanyahu, deriding the investigatory work.

“This is the same Lapid who vowed to topple me at any cost,” added the prime minister, who has long claimed the investigation is politically motivated. “He is a good friend of Milchan, which isn’t a sin, but he is; he was employed by him.”

Lapid also discussed, as finance minister, Milchan’s interests with the Israel-born billionaire, Netanyahu alleged.

Arnon Milchan (center) with Shimon Peres (left) and Benjamin Netanyahu, March 28, 2005. (Flash90/File)

“I get [indictment] recommendations, and Lapid gets applause,” he protested.

Like Netanyahu, Lapid and Milchan were said to have had a friendly relationship dating back decades, and the former journalist and TV personality was briefly employed by the mogul’s New Regency Films some 30 years ago.

In his speech, the prime minister again denied wrongdoing in both cases and accused the police of harboring bias against him.

“After reading the recommendations report, I can say it’s biased, extreme, has holes like Swiss cheese and holds no water,” said Netanyahu.

He added that the summary misrepresented his friendship with Milchan, and “it inflates the sums [the cost of the gifts] beyond recognition” in order to “reach the magic number.”

In total, the prime minister is said to have received over NIS 1 million ($282,000) in illicit gifts, between Milchan and Milchan’s business partner, Australian billionaire James Packer.

Far from acting to advance Milchan’s business interests, Netanyahu said some decisions he made actually harmed them, including breaking a car import monopoly of Milchan’s.

Lapid, on Tuesday night, confirmed his testimony and said he had resisted pressure by Netanyahu to advance the so-called Milchan Law.

“Police contacted me and asked me to give testimony about my time at the Finance Ministry. Like any law-abiding citizen, I gave them a short testimony, which touched on the attempt to extend the ‘Milchan Law’ (on tax exemptions) to 20 years.

“I will emphasize that despite all the pressure, I refused to pass the law,” he said. “In this instance as in other instances, Yesh Atid was the last bulwark against government corruption, in the face of politicians occupied solely with themselves and their own well being.”

Government ministers attacked Lapid’s role in the case against Netanyahu on Tuesday.

Tourism Minister Yariv Levin said it was “shameful that the key witness against prime minister Netanyahu is politician Yair Lapid, who has for years sought to replace him.”

Culture Minister Miri Regev said Lapid “decided to join guillotine-happy crowds” who have been protesting against the prime minister in Tel Aviv “in order to try and bring down Netanyahu through anti-democratic means.”

Coalition chief David Amsalem called him a “shtinker” — similar to a snitch.

The police recommendations will now go to Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, who will have to decide whether to indict Netanyahu on any or all of the suggested charges.

The second case against Netanyahu, Case 2000, involves a suspected illicit quid-pro-quo deal between Netanyahu and Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper publisher Arnon Mozes that would have seen the prime minister weaken a rival daily, the Sheldon Adelson-backed Israel Hayom, in return for more favorable coverage from Yedioth.

The prime minister denies all wrongdoing.

Raoul Wootliff and Alexander Fulbright contributed to this report.

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